Friday, April 19, 2013

Fostering the Student Momentum

This blog post is a reflection on the 2013 GlobeMed Global Health Summit at Northwestern University from April 11-14. This year’s Summit theme – The Student Momentum – was a pursuit of the answer to the question “why students?” and an investigation of the necessary role youth play in today’s social movements. The keynote speaker was Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Liberian peace activist.

My generation brings with it the promise for social change. We identify a problem that is meaningful and we fight for it. For some it is racial injustice, climate change, conditions of incarceration, or domestic violence. For me, it is global health inequity. This year’s GlobeMed Global Health Summit helped me understand what my generation needs to make this promise for social change a reality.

I left the Summit with greater insight into the role of higher education in giving students the tools to facilitate social change. We should be learning how to make a difference in whatever we ultimately decide to do post-graduation whether an investment banking job on Wall St or a fellowship in the developing world. The key to this success is an interdisciplinary approach. None of the world’s problems can be solved only through scientific research or only through an economic approach or only using anthropological concepts. In order to improve child malnutrition (in rural areas of El Salvador, the site of GlobeMed at Amherst’s partner organization, 25% of children younger than five years old suffer from chronic malnutrition), we must look through all of these lenses and more. We need scientists who can genetically fortify foods with the micronutrients that specific populations of children lack. We need public health experts who can identify the societal factors that are creating the problem. We need economists who can identify the best ways to promote economic development, economic growth, and structural change to alleviate the problem. We need political scientists to identify and address structural political causes. We need filmmakers, graphic designers, and computer scientists to create compelling materials to raise awareness and funds.

The point is that a whole range of skillsets is required. As paying customers at institutions of higher education, we students should demand that our colleges and universities provide plenty of opportunities for interdisciplinary study. We will have to think multilaterally in the post-college world, shouldn’t we get started now?

Another important aspect of social change is sustainability. When addressing a social problem, the goal is to make a lasting impact. This requires enacting policy on a national level. Tutoring underprivileged kids in Holyoke or building fish ponds and chicken coops in El Salvador to address food security problems are absolutely fantastic endeavors and nothing to be scoffed at, but what about the 16 million other kids living in poverty in the US (Columbia University National Center for Children in Poverty)? What about the over one-third of child deaths annually in El Salvador that are a result of undernutrition (WHO)? We must act locally, think globally. We must demand that the Amherst College Center of Community Engagement, the organization tasked with engaging students in social responsibility, provide not just opportunities to tutor, but opportunities to take our experiences tutoring to a national policy making level. Let’s get involved in policy work. Let’s get involved in making a difference in not just one or two kids’ lives, but millions.

Amherst College, through the CCE and other channels, should be putting a greater emphasis on facilitating interdisciplinary engagement and experiential learning, not only through tutoring. GlobeMed’s Human Rights Day Dinner in the fall drew over one hundred students and faculty members from several different departments gave short presentations about how their field of study is involved in human rights. The most common feedback we received was “wow, I didn’t know that history/political science/economics/anthropology/etc. played such an important role in the human rights movement!” The CCE should be lighting this fire under the student body and encouraging everyone to realize that they too can make a difference. It should offer a diverse range of ways to get involved locally, nationally, and globally. Virtually every student I have talked to feels that the CCE does hardly anything; they aren’t willing to support student experiential learning, they make funding difficult to receive, and they don’t offer a diverse collection of ways to get involved. The ideas are there – campus wide service days, CCE organized trips to local, national, and global locations, support for existing student organizations, the facilitation of connections between students and local shelters, hospitals, environmental organizations, etc. – and the role of the CCE is to put them into action. It should be easy for all students (not just those interested in tutoring or entrepreneurship) to get involved now so that they’ll continue to think in a socially conscious way for the rest of their lives.

Students want to make change. That is why GlobeMed is already at fifty schools nationwide and growing fast, and this is only one student social justice organization of many! We come to college to prepare for the real world. Let’s ask our institutions to help set the stage for us to get out there and make positive change.

- CJ Bernstein ’15, Co-President of GlobeMed at Amherst College

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